What Forward Thinking Retailers are Doing: Trends That Probably Won’t Surprise Anybody

The issues that smaller retailers are facing haven’t changed much. There are too many retail stores, pressure from chains, brand stores and big boxes, a tough financial model, the challenge of keeping margins up, lack of product differentiation, increasing costs, over distribution.

That’s a cheery environment, isn’t it? You’ve got a choice. You can bemoan the unfairness of it all or you can take advantage of this tough environment that’s putting a lot of pressure on your competitors and do some things to stand out and that help you address these issues.
Here’s what I’m seeing successful retailers doing.
One- They Are Growing
Higher costs, more competition and margin pressure, too much similar product in too many places means that you need more revenue to make it. This seems so non controversial as to make this a really short section. It’s basically an equation; a fact. It just is.  But I’ve put it first because it’s the ultimate motivating factor for the other actions I discuss below. You have to make a profit if you expect to be around very long.
Two- Making Themselves Important to Their Brands
How does a shop do this exactly? Well, for a start, it pays its bills to the brand on time. It’s absolutely honest with the brand’s sales reps and management. It merchandises the brand well. It includes the brand in its own promotions. It provides feedback (good and bad) on what’s selling, why, and on trends it sees emerging. It does not abuse the brand’s warranty and return policy. And finally it does not let the brand talk it into buying products it doesn’t think will sell well or order sizes it doesn’t think it can move. As we all know, the season end conversations such moves engender are not helpful in building a relationship.
It may have occurred to you that growing (point one) contributes to making a shop important to the brand (point two). Could be a trend emerging here.
Three- Gives Credibility to the Brands They Carry
The best shops are the ones the brands just have to be in. The shop gives the brand credibility- not the other way around. Any brand carried by the shop is, by definition, credible. For a shop this can translate into flexibility in your relationship with the brand. That may mean, among other things, better terms and conditions, priority in new product and shipping, patience from the brand if you hit a rough spot, support for your community based activities, faster and more positive response from management, and more ability to pick the products and categories you carry. Obviously, it’s kind of a subset to point two above. However, I chose to separate it because at the extreme, when a shop really does this well, there is pretty much no brand they absolutely have to carry to be successful. And that ties in with……………….
Four- Expanding Their Circle of Influence
When it’s the shop that gives the brand credibility it’s because the shop has become acknowledged as an arbiter of trends and technical product attributes. They are a destination store for their customers. They are part of their community, but of course the definition of that community has changed. It no longer means just the geographic community, but a community of people with shared interests and lifestyles.
A customer’s awareness of an established brand is typically the result of that brand’s advertising and promotion programs. Those programs may have a lot to do with getting the customer into the store. But the decision to purchase that brand, in a shop with this kind of stature, can be heavily influenced by the experienced and knowledgeable sales people. You can hear the conversation in your head- “Brand X is a great brand and that deck would certainly work for you, but here’s a couple of others you might consider based on what you’ve told me about your style and level of experience.”
And that product, whatever it is, doesn’t necessarily have to be one the customer has ever heard of. If it’s in this store, it must be good. Kind of frustrating to a big brand, I suppose, to think that all their work advertising and promoting their brand and getting the customer into the shop turned out to be a chance for the sales person to sell a brand the customer has hardly heard of.
On the other hand, it might give hope to smaller, new brands. The support of shops like this ideal type shop I’m describing may be the best chance such brands have to prove themselves.
Five- Buying Together
I can’t tell you this is a wide spread trend, but I did have a conversation with one European retailer who was very happy with the result. He was a specialty shop in, I think, Southern Austria. He was practically chortling as he explained to me the happy circumstance he found himself in as part of an 11 store buying group. You see, it happens that the other ten stores were all in Northern Austria. So while all eleven stores got the benefit of better prices from buying together, the ten in the north suffered from the possible disadvantage of all having the same product. He, happily segregated in the south of the country, didn’t have to worry about that. No wondered he positively glowed as he described the scheme.
Of course, if you’re getting better pricing through some cooperative buying, maybe the pressure for growth (point one) declines a bit, and lord knows you’re becoming more important to the brands (point two). Maybe not more popular, but more important.
Interestingly, my advice to brands has always been, “Europe is different from the US. You can’t think of Europe as one market. You can’t even think of Germany as one market.”
That’s still good advice, and I expected it to apply to specialty retailers as well. I thought retail in Europe would be “different” from retail in the US. Imagine my surprise when, in the two years I just spent in Europe, I discovered that it really wasn’t- at least not in terms of the challenges European retailers were facing.
 Wow- wherever you go, there you’ll be.
By which I mean Europe seems to have the same damned problems we have, and I suppose if we can take any comfort from that it’s because it means we here in the US haven’t done anything egregiously stupid that Europe somehow avoided.
Finally- Taking Risks, But Not Really
I hope I’ve made the point that these five operational imperatives, to coin a really pompous sounding phrase, don’t stand in isolation from each other. Nor do they stand in isolation from the specialty shop’s retail environment I briefly described at the start of this article. There are as many tactics as you are clever enough to think of that you can try to move your shop towards the market position I’ve described.
I’ve talked to lots of retailers who were cautious about trying them. They cost “too much,” had never been tried before, there wasn’t time to do them, etc. In a word, they were risky.
And you know what? They are risky- especially if you try and implement them on a piece meal basis. It might even be true that it would be a waste of time.
What I’ve tried to demonstrate in this article is that the operational imperatives are related to each other and in fact support each other. Each of them is comprised of a group of tactics that each shop needs to identify based on its particular circumstances. There is a certain momentum you build as you support a tactic from one imperative with a tactic from another. You don’t increase risk by doing more- I think you reduce it.
Or look at it another way; If you agree that you got to have a financial model that makes sense, and you are struggling with your current one, and you agree that your business environment isn’t getting any easier and calls for some change, then even if there is some risk here, isn’t it less risk than doing nothing?
I’m going to use a word here I usually avoid because (at least for me) it frequently engenders serious confusion about what it means accompanied by a sense that it’s futile to try and figure it out and implement it. The word is strategy.
But of course we’re all following one even if we don’t know what it is, speaking of risk taking. And if, like me, you’re just a bit intimidated by “strategy” because you’re not quite clear what the hell it is, maybe we can get some clarity by just considering it a bunch of related tactics.
My five operational imperatives, or rather the tactics that would make them up, are a strategy to deal with the existing retail environment. You don’t have to say, “It’s time for a new strategy,” but you might consider picking some appropriate tactics for each operational imperative and start doing them. Might be fun, probably wouldn’t cost much, you might find that the results are cumulative and often quick to see, and there’s not much risk involves. Your business environment requires you give it a shot.